And the moon came round the earth and showered down sparks. And the Whale slapped the waters with His tail. And there sprang forth clouds from the spray that flew therefrom. And the Whale split the waters. And land rose. And trees. And lichen. And cells multiplied and wriggled about the land and in the waters. And from the land fell Jonah. And the Whale’s jaws opened and swallowed Jonah. And Jonah spent three days and twenty nights within the Whale’s belly. And the Whale’s name was God. And after three days and twenty nights, the Whale spewed Jonah out again. And Jonah struggled to the land and walked upon it and cursed his captivity.
And Jonah digged in the sand like a tortoise and buried his sodden clothes; then, like a tortoise covered he them. And Jonah stood and gazed out over the sea. And the sea was calm. And, turning, Jonah looked to the land and found it good. Afar off there was a forest and brush. And Jonah stretched forth his legs and pointed them to the forest. And Jonah left the seashore.
Naked came Jonah into the world . . . And naked he returned to it.
And Jonah cursed the days of his captivity.
He stuck a thumb under his nose and aimed it in the direction of the sea . . . then turned his back and scurried toward the forest.
And Jonah hewed down a tree of the forest and build himself an hut, and thatched himself a roof out of the tree’s leaves. And he slew a creature of the earth and fashioned himself a girdle from its skin. And he took its bladder and cured it on a wooden rack. And when it was cured, he filled it with water and left the forest and set out across the sands to a far land, to a city called Nineveh, the Prostitute. And when he reached that city, he turned to the desert and cursed the Whale once again, and fell upon his face at the city gaze and sang its praises. And a great bird flew across the sky, its wing rustling the leaves of the trees and stirring the sands, like a soft each wind blowing gently. And the gates of the city opened and Jonah entered therein. And the gates of the city closed. And the great bird’s wings blotted out the sun and it was night. And in the darkness the great bird alighted atop the city’s gates and folded its wings and watched as Jonah disappeared into the city’s depths.
* * *
“Accursed desert!” Jonah swiped a hand across his lips and spat. “Tah!” He hitched up his leathern girdle and adjusted the straps on his water sack. He lifted his head, nostrils flared, sniffing. “It’s good to be back in civilization again!” he muttered to himself. “But in this civilization, it looks like everyone’s snoring.” The street was utterly deserted. Jonah couldn’t hear a sound from any quarter. Nor see a sliver of light. It was, as he had imagined, as if everyone had gone to bed . . . or had abandoned the city. Who knew which? He looked upwards at the windows. Darkness. He peered down alleyways, streets. Darkness. He sniffed at doorways. Darkness. “Bah!” He tugged at his beard and continued down yet another empty street, turning left. He began to shiver. The night wind, at first soft and war as a woman’s breath, was blowing chilly. His bony frame was used to a warm fire and a hut at night. Not this skulking around a deserted street after the sun was chased from the skies. He stopped at a darkened intersection and cocked his head, cupping a hand behind his ear. A noise? A lover’s moan? Or was it some alley stray like himself, scuffing the streets? He stretches his neck, listening. It seemed to come from that way, his ear said to his brain. That way! The street to the left! He hitched up his girdle again, hiked his water sack further up on his back, and made off down the street toward the sound. It was only the faintest sort of a sound. Like a cricket. Or a cat hewing. Every now and then he would stop, extend his ear, and listen. Then he would proceed. Then stop. Then begin again. Lurching . . . like a drunkard . . . or a starved desert wayfarer. He looked like both.
Stopping once more, Jonah looked down at himself. “Humph! If I find it’s someone, they’ll run for the soldiers! They’ll think I’m a robber!” He struck the front of his girdle with the flat of hand. “What a sight I am!” Spitting into the street, he set off again. Coming to another intersection, he stretched his ear. The noise was coming from the alleyway that dove between two shadowy buildings to his right. He stood, quiet, not drink to breathe. He could hear his heart hammering away in his chest. It sounded like an anvil ringing. Or the thunk! of a well’s leathers. He inserted his head into the alleyway’s opening. Could he see a faint light? He balled both hands into fists and rubbed his eyes. He inserted his head again. He had! A light! He let out his breath in a long whistle. Life! He dove between the walls and disappeared.
The alleyway was pitch black except for the light shining in the distance. Reaching outward with his arms he could touch the buildings on either side, the passage was so narrow. The path underfoot was worn smooth. Suddenly, almost without warning, he was opposite a door from under which streamed a sliver of light. “Hah! What is this?” he said to himself, gnawing his fingernails. He stood, light gleaming from his knees, chest. “Hanh! Well, Jonah! Bang on the door, fool! What’d you scurry here for if not to find out what’s behind it?” He raised a long warm and, making a fist, hammered on the door. Then he stood in the darkness, waiting, heart chugging away inside him. Footsteps. Nearer. They reached the door, stopped. Jonah hitched up his girdle, ready to spring down the alley and flee. Then, suddenly, Jonah was bathed in light. He was blinded.
“Yes?” a soft voice asked. “Who is it?”
“Jonah!” His voice rasped over dry rushes. “It’s me, Jonah!”
“Oh! I haven’t seen you before.”
“Nor I, you!” Jonah gritted his teeth. Why had he stumbled down this alleyway in the first pale? he muttered to himself, angrily. Now, here, where he’d wanted to be, he suddenly didn’t want to be anymore. And he couldn’t make out the owner of the voice. The light still blinded him. “I can’t see you!” he grumbled. “The light!”
“Oh,” the soft voice answered. “Why don’t you come in?”
“You don’t think I’m a robber, then!” Jonah asserted. “Eh?”
“You don’t loo like a robber.”
“Hah!” Jonah muttered under his breath. He reached up, grasped the door frame, and pulled himself into the room. He leaned against the wall, eyes slowly adjusting to the blinding light. “Is that so?” he said aloud.
“Nothing. I was talking to myself. I’ve made a habit of it in the past few months.” He grimaced at the voice through his beard. “Where I’ve been, there’s been no one else to talk to but myself.”
Jonah’s eyes cleared. A figure coalesced. A woman. The first thing he noticed about her were her eyes: piercing ice blue. Set either side of a long, finely shaped nose with nostrils like tiny pearls, halved and set on edge. Above them, a ugh broad forehead chiseled from stone. But not hard stone. Not stubborn, gritty, bullheaded stone like that of his father and his father’s father. Carve-able stone. And set all round by shimmering silver hair like white gold. The face had a strong chin and a broad mouth curved in a smile. He looked down. The woman had high breasts set well on her chest. And a curved belly, broad hips and, no doubt, he thought to himself, strong legs.
“I’m Marissa,” the woman said.
Jonah felt the woman’s wide, frank eyes drilling into him. What did he want from her? Where was he from? Who was he? Besides being “Jonah.” And what was he dong roaming around the city in the middle of the night? It was a wonder the soldiers hadn’t caught him sneaking down the street like a bandit.
“Jonah.” He liked the way the woman’s tongue and lips formed round his name, like a trickle of water or a note in a song. “Jonah,” softly, a conjunction of breath and flesh.
“I’m from the desert!” his dry voice said, sounding harsh. The cawing of a crow. he looked down at himself. “These,” he pronounced, gesturing at his leather girdle and sandals, “I made them. From the skin of animals I caught and ate.”
“Are you a wild man, then?” Marissa asked, eyes widening.
“No. A freed slave.”
“A slave, then.”
Marissa’s eyes asked: “Whose?”
Jonah said nothing. Then, “I was looking for a place to lodge. The streets were dark. Except for your light shining in the alleyway there.” He tapped the door with a finger. “I arrived just as the sun fled from the night.”He slipped the bladder from his shoulder and leaned it against the wall. “Perhaps yo know of somewhere . . .”
“You could stay here,” her soft voice replied; “There is a spare bed. Come!” Turning, she led Jonah into a rear roo. In the corner lay a cot, bare. “I’ll get some bedding,” she said, disappearing through another door.
Jonah inserted a finger in an ear and dug. Stay here? With a woman? Whom he didn’t know? Who had heard of such a thing? Marissa appeared again, carrying bedclothes.
“You can bathe in thee,” she sang, pointing to a door. “Some fresh clothes are on the stand for yo.”
Obediently, head spinning, Jonah entered the room Marissa had indicated and removed his girdle. It creaked with dirt and sweet. He let it fall to the floor. It fell like a dead animal, starved, with no weight except for a rack of bones covered with filthy hide. He looked around. In a corner, a large tub filled to the brim with steaming water. He went over to it, poked in a finger, then got in. He settled back, letting his beard rest on top of the water. The tops of his knees stuck out like islands covered with short, scrubby trees and scaly earth.
“Everything’s ready, Jonah!” Marissa stood in the doorway, arms akimbo, smiling. Her hair shone like the sun rising from beneath the earth. “Ah, Jonah!” She clapped her hands. “You look better!”
He looked down at himself. For the first time in many months, his face creased in a smile. He threw back his head and laughed.
“Ah! Marissa! Marissa! It’s a pretty name, Marissa. I like it! And I like these!” He gestured at his robe. “I feel new again. No longer a slave! Ha, ha! And that is for me?” He went over to the cot and sat on it, bouncing up and down on the clean bedclothes. He looked up at Marissa. “I like this! I’ll sleep well here!”
“Yes, Jonah.” Marissa’s blue eyes danced. “I’m glad you came. I was lonely here.”
“Yes. Yes.” Jonah’s beard bobbed up and down. “Yes. And you? Where will you sleep? Is this your bed?”
Marissa pointed to a pallet next to the wall opposite. “There. I’ll sleep there, Jonah. Near you.” The blue eyes sparkled.
“Yes. Yes. There. So we’ll neither be lonely. Yes.” Jonah smiled to himself and lay down on the cot and pulled the covers over himself.
“Goodnight, Jonah. You will be a comfort to me.” Cupping a hand behind the candle’s flame — the candle on its earthen pedestal, which lighted the room — Marissa blew from between pursed lips, and the room was dark. “Goodnight, Jonah.”
“Goodnight . . . Marissa!” Turning on his side, Jonah slept.The hand that cupped the candle’s flame was large, like a man’s, yet fleshed out and soft, like a woman’s. Like Marissa, it had strength, yet was soft. Marissa. Marissa. Jonah scratched an ear.
The great bird perched like a statue on the city’s gates, wings folded. Its eyes, two stars, watched over the city in its sleep. The city slept, without a sound. Round about it, the sand swirled in tiny miniature tornadoes — puffs blown before a woman’s pursed lips. Far off there was a patch of forest near the seashore, and in the forest the dead embers and bones of a campsite. The sea lapped gently at the short. Forgotten lay the tortoise’s burden buried in the sand.
* * *
Jonah slept. And at the dawn the sun, renewed, chased the night from the skies. And doorways opened. And windows. And people stepped forth. And in the alleyway, Jonah stirred.
Jonah groaned and stretched. Light was pouring in the single tiny window high above his bed. He opened one eye, then the other. He lifted himself on one elbow. Looked around. His brain, sodden, began to clear.
“Ah, yes!” He nodded to himself, then, focusing this eyes, peered across the room. Marissa still slept lying on her back. Her cheek rested on the pillow. One arm was thrown above her head, the other curved across her belly. A smile crept through Jonah’s beard. He swung his feet to the floor and, gathering the bedclothes around his knees, sat watching her. Her eyes lay covered, dreaming, her breast gently rising and falling. “Marissa.” He formed his lips round the word. “Marissa.” He had liked the way she had called his name last night. “She is almost a girl,” he said to himself. “To be living here . . . alone. Yet to invite me in, to spend the night. Me, a wild man from the desert.” He recalled the smooth-worn path leading down the alley past her door. “No!” he muttered; “The footsteps run past this door and continue on!” The smile faded. As he sat watching her, many thoughts crossed through his head: half-formed thoughts like snatches of conversations. He paid them little attention. They were talking to themselves, arguing! Watching her, he found himself unable to think in a straight line. The thoughts, somehow hatched in his brain, floated off incomplete. Somehow, they didn’t belong to him. Somehow, since leaving the forest, things didn’t seem the same. He shook his head, to clear it. Casting off his leather girdle, he felt like a snake with a new skin, the old one lying dried and cracking in the sun. He didn’t understand it, this newness. He bent his elbow and with long fingers, stroked his beard. Even it seemed different. It was washed and clean. He felt of his nose, ran a finger around his lips, touched his eyes. He threw back his head and laughed silently, eyes crinkling, hugging his knees, rocking back and forth on the narrow cot. He looked across the room at Marissa. Her breast rose and fell. Then, suddenly, her blue eyes smiled at him.
“Jonah. You are still here.” Her broad lips parted, forming the words.
“Yes, Marissa, I am still here.”
“You look so different.” She hugged her knees and looked at him.
“No longer a robber . . . or a bandit blown in from the desert with the sand! A snake with new skin!” Jonah crinkled his eyes and winked. “Your doing, Marissa! What a strange woman you are, taking me in. Without the slightest idea who I am. Me, a wild man dressed in skins. I bang on your door and you invite me in to spend the night.’ Jonah sucked on the ends of his mustache. “You only know my name.”
“What is more to know?” Marissa sprang to her feet. “Come! I’ll prepare us something to break our fast!”
Jonah watched her from his perch on the cot. She swung her long arms and legs like a man, with swift, brisk strides.
“Come, you can help me!” she called from the room he had entered the night before.
Getting to his feet, Jonah thrust his legs out in front of him and went to where Marissa was bent over a small, flat earthen stove, cracking eggs onto a stone skillet. He looked around the room. It was windowless. His water sack still leaned against the door post where he had placed it. In a corner stood a low wooden cabinet, and on top of that, a piece of light blue rough muslin the color of Marissa’s eyes. Against one wall sat a small wooden table with two benches. Against another, a wooden box. He looked down at Marissa. Turning her head, she smiled at him.
“You can help,” she said, aiming a finger at the cabinet. “There are dishes in there. And some goat’s cheese. You can put them on the table.” She picked another egg from its nest in a bowl, and with a quick movement of her wrist, cracked it onto the stone. It crackled. Bending down, Jonah opened the cabinet’s door, reached in, and took out two wide, flattish earthen bowls and two shallow-bowled bone spoons which he placed on the table. Bending down again, he reached into the cabinet’s bowels and drew out a chunk of brownish goat’s cheese which he placed on the table between two plates. Reaching with his toe, he shut the cabinet’s door, then turned to look at Marissa. She was still bending over the stove. Another egg lay sizzling on the skillet. Jonah looked at her broad shoulders as they rose and fell under the taut fabric of her gown.
Marissa turned, smiling “Yes?”
“Nothing . . . Nothing.” Jonah shrugged his shoulders, feeling a bit foolish and at a loss for words in front of this woman. “I don’t know. I find it strange being here with you, like this.” He gestured at the room, the eggs, his clothing. “Heh.” He waved an arm. “You took me in . . . Gave me these clothes . . . a bed. And now this.” He sniffed the air. “It’s difficult for me to think straight this morning.” He grinned foolishly.
“It’s alright, Jonah.” Marissa wrinkled her nose at him. Raising a long arm, she pointed to the box against the opposite wall. “If you get in there, you’ll find some bread. Then we can eat.” Her broad mouth curved upwards in a smile
Jonah crossed the room, reached into the box, and took out a small loaf of dark bread. Taking it to the table, he placed it next to the cheese. Three golden eggs steamed in his bowl. Marissa had put two eggs in her own. Jonah sat. Placing a wineskin in its cradle Marissa sat across from him. Her wide frank eyes bade him to eat.
“It’s nice having you here . . . to eat with, Jonah.” Marissa placed a bite of egg in her mouth and chewed. “I usually eat alone.”
“You are alone, then. You have no husband.”
“A husband? I had one. But he is no longer here.” Her blue eyes clouded, then brightening, pierced him. “But you are here, Jonah.” She cut the cheese with a knife and placed a piece on the edge of his bowl. Then she reached across the table and rested the tips of her fingers on his cheek.
Jonah reddened and looked down at his bowl. He cleared his throat. “Your husband. What happened to him?”
“He went away. Months ago. We didn’t get along.”
He glanced up at her. She was smiling.
“And now I am here, eh, Marissa? Me, Jonah. A castaway. Sleeping in your bed . . . eating your food. What do you know about me that you should want me here? And should your husband return . . .”
“He won’t. You’re strong, Jonah.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Why are you making me think about these thing? I feel good with you here.” She chewed swallowed. “You ask too many questions, Jonah. Are you troubled, staying here?”
Jonah placed another piece of egg in his mouth and chewed. Absent-mindedly he tore a piece of bread from the loaf and dabbed it in the yellow yolk. “Troubled? Perhaps. I’m not used to . . . this. Being taken in like this. It’s . . . new.” He put the bread in his mouth, chewed. He scowled. He was making things worse. He couldn’t explain how he felt: ambiguous, perplexed, tossing at sea. What kind of a woman was Marissa? Her husband had left her. Why? He couldn’t make sense of it. Such wide, frank eyes. Such strength . . . yet softness. What he’d noticed the evening before. The touch of her finger on his cheek aaas soft, like cool pillows. Yet the hands were large. And her lips? Like pads. No doubt oft, like her fingertips. He watched her out of narrowed eyes. A temper, maybe? I so, it hadn’t shown itself in the short time he’d been her guest. What? He chewed. Perhaps her husband had run off with another woman. If so, he was an idiot, leaving her. Jonah shuddered, remembering his forest hut and the owls swinging over his head at night. No comparison with this. Marissa mopped the remaining yolk from her bowl with a piece of bread. Jonah swallowed, silent, muttering to himself. He was genuinely perplexed. Looking at her, he saw her face as open, unclouded by gloomy, morose thoughts. If she had any, she kept them well hidden. Hidden . . . because he was here, sitting across the table from her? He started, dropping a crumb to his lap. Absurd! Yet, she’d said he made her feel good. “You’re strong,” is what she said. “I must be getting old. An old fool!” Jonah grunted. “Pah! She must be years younger than I.” He cleared his throat.
“Why do you want me here?” he blurted. “Why do you find pleasure in my being here?”
She looked at him, a dove startled by the cough of a lion.
“I want to know! Why?” Jonah tugged at his beard. “It’s out of the ordinary, your taking me in.”
Marissa looked at her empty bowl. Her lips parted, forming words. “No, Jonah, not strange. Why do you ask me these questions? Are you afraid of me?”
Jonah sucked in his breath. “No . . . yes! Afraid. Somewhat. Afraid.” He looked down at his hands clenched in his lap. “You are a lovely woman, Marissa. Which is why I am afraid.” Marissa reached across the table and took his cheeks between her palms. “I . . . ah . . . don’t want to get saddled with a woman, Marissa. To let you get to relying on me.” Her hands felt cool on his rough cheeks. “I . . . ah . . . I . . . It’s been a long time since I’ve sat across from a woman.” He gritted his teeth, hard! “A long time.”
“Jonah. Don’t be afraid. I don’t want to keep you. Don’t you understand that? You knocked on my door, wanting shelter. I gave it to you, that’s all. And I enjoy your being here, to talk to me, to keep me company.” Her blue eyes softened. “Just to have you here . . . for the moment. You were so lost last night. And so gruff! Hammering on my door in the middle of the night! And then you came in. And laughed when yo sat, clean, on your bed.” She giggled and pinched the lobes of his ears. “You enjoyed being here, Jonah. And now, do you not? Your questions make clouds darken on your face. Banish them. Enjoy being here, Jonah. While you are here.”
Outside, footsteps passed down the alleyway, rising, then falling again. And voices babbled. It was daylight. Could he . . . enjoy . . . after the Whale? He’d spent so long in His belly, he barely knew anything else. The Laws he’d learned there seemed indelibly writ inside his skull. He looked into Marissa’s eyes and trembled. Then, pursing his lips, he kissed here wrists, the palms of here hands.
“I must go now!” he rasped. Her lips nibbled his bony hands. Soft pads of flesh. “I need imd to think! I’ve been a slave too long, Marissa! Too long!”
Pushing his bench back, Jonah got to his feet. He reached round behind him and seized the straps of his water sack. Then, turning, he seized the latch, jerked the door open, and rushed out into the alleyway. Eyes distended, he fled
* * *
Jonah’s robes hung loosely from his shoulders as he strode along. His eyes were inflamed. He walked, lips parted and parched, down busy streets, through markets, burst through archways clotted with people. He kept looking behind him, as though seeing a devil hot on his heels. Beads of sweat stood out on his head. His sandalled feet puffed clouds from the dusty streets. Leaning exhausted against a building, Jonah shifted the bladder around in front, seized its muzzle in his teeth, and drank. The water was hot from the sun. Flinging it onto his back again, Jonah set off down another street. His brain was sinning. Marissa. Marissa! He couldn’t dislodge her image. She smiled at him. Her hair shimmered golden round her head. “Jonah. Jonah.” she seemed to be saying.
Coming to a marketplace, Jonah rushed through it, down an alley, and threw himself at the door of a small house. Bursting through it, he fell heavily to his knees, the water sack spilling over his shoulder and thumping heavily against the earthen floor. Footsteps came running. Rachel. More footsteps. Three small faces peered from behind their mother. His sons: Samu’el, Jacob, Judah. Jonah rolled his eyes up at them.
“Jonah!” Rachel swept him into her arms. His small sons swarmed over him. Moaning, Jonah clung to them. “Jonah! What is wrong? You look like you’ve been chased by a demon!” His sons, squealing, hugged him.
“Yes, a demon!” Jonah rasped. “A demon.”
Cool pads caressed his cheeks.
He was home!
* * *
This story was first published in The South Dakota Review, Autumn, 1971. My thanks go to novelist Frederick Manfred for encouraging me to write it and send it to The South Dakota Review, and to its Editor, John Milton, for publishing it, my first published work of fiction.